The trouble with great films is that one rarely gets a chance to discover them for oneself. I’d read so much about Citizen Kane, for example, that when, at the impressionable age of 17, I finally got to watch it, it seemed not so much a movie as an academic exercise. The verdict, duly recorded in my diary, was ‘not bad’, though this needs to be put into perspective alongside the ‘superb’ awarded that same weekend to a Mott the Hoople gig at the Croydon Greyhound.
Until its first rerelease in 1984, it was easier to read about Vertigo than to see it. This is the one in which James Stewart plays an acrophobic private detective hired to follow Kim Novak, wife of an old school chum, as she wanders around San Francisco, apparently possessed by the spirit of a suicidal ancestor. He falls in love with her – and that’s as much of the plot as I’m going to reveal.For years, the film played hard-to-get, though during the 1970s there were rumours of a scratchy pirate print that occasionally surfaced in repertory houses. But everything one read was so awed and respectful it was inevitable the film itself would be something of a let-down. Of course I admired Kim Novak’s grey suit (possibly the most significant grey suit in the history of cinema), floaty chiffon scarves and Kelly bags, because they fitted snugly into my then revolutionary Accessory Theory of Film Criticism.
Of course I adored Saul Bass’s opening credits, in which dark lipstick meets the Double Helix, and Bernard Herrmann’s music, to which I fantasised choreographing an ice dance (full of Death Spirals, naturally) for Torvill and Dean. And I was duly impressed by the famous stomach-turning zoom-in-and-track-out to convey Stewart’s fear of heights – an effect I’d read about but up until then only seen copied in Jaws.
On the whole, though, I thought Vertigo was neither as much fun nor as flawlessly executed as two other Hitchcock thrillers from the same era, Rear Window and North By Northwest. In particular, screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor’s adaptation of D’entre les morts (by Boileau and Narcejac, who also wrote the novel on which Les diaboliques was based) committed the cardinal sin of casually giving away a vital plot twist half an hour before the end. It was primarily this that threw the critics off balance back in 1958, when the film first came out, and I must admit it threw me off balance too.
Mea culpa. The past 13 years have convinced me that Vertigo is one film that doesn’t just repay repeated viewings – it urgently requires them. Hitchcock has utilised the thriller form that came to him so easily, but taken as a thriller, it’s riddled with holes. In its analysis of romantic obsession, however, it’s up there with Proust as a world-beater – and it doesn’t take nearly as hefty a chunk out of your life.
The marvellous thing about it, though, is that as a movie it’s anything but cool and analytical; moment after moment makes you go weak at the knees. Here are two of the most spine-tingling kisses of all time, as well as some of the most heart-rending dialogue – ‘If I let you change me, will you love me?’ – adding fuel to my theory that the harder the cynic’s shell, the more hopeless the romantic heart that beats within.
The cynical-yet-romantic Hitchcock is sometimes regarded as a misogynist, but while the story of Vertigo is told from Stewart’s point of view, the camera quite clearly sides with the women, lingering on the faces of Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes (who plays the career girl who loves Stewart but who is far too well-balanced to appeal to him) and recording their pained reactions to his increasingly unhinged behaviour. The giving away of that final plot twist, one can see now, is crucial if one is to grasp the futility of his romantic obsession.
Appropriately for a film about repetitive behavioural patterns, I watch it repeatedly in the vain hope that, one day, the ending might turn out differently. It never does, of course, though there’s always something new to see on the way. On this latest occasion, there was something very new indeed, namely a stunningly restored print (let’s hear it for restorers Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz) which makes you realise that, all these years, you’ve been watching the ghost of a movie. What colours, what sounds, what bliss.
(First published in the Sunday Telegraph, 1997. This review – and others like it – can be found in my e-book Spoilers Part 2: Selected Film Reviews, which can be downloaded in all e-formats, via this link, for less than the price of a cup of coffee.)
Five Things Alfred Hitchcock’s Films Taught Me by Anne Billson in the Guardian: “Hitchcock has been proposed for the national curriculum. Here are a few life lessons children might learn from watching his films.”